The New Jersey Titans have had a ton of success at the expense of the Jamestown Rebels this season.
New Jersey won six of eight games between the teams during the regular season with the Titans outscoring Jamestown 25-17, but six of the games came before New Year’s.
Rebels head coach Joe Coombs insists that his team is different now — injuries to Carter Casper, Reid Lune, Owen West and Joe Calvarino have forced it to be.
They’ll have the chance to prove it beginning tonight.
No. 1 New Jersey and No. 3 Jamestown will open their best-of-five East Division finals at 7:30 tonight at Middletown Ice World Arena in northern New Jersey.
“We were really bad the first couple of times we played them,” Coombs said Wednesday evening. “The whole idea behind how I built every team is to continue to grow and get better.”
Game 2 will be Saturday at 7 p.m. in Middletown with Game 3 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Northwest Arena. An if-necessary Game 4 would be at 7 p.m. next Friday at Northwest Arena with a deciding Game 5 at 7 p.m. next Sunday back in Middletown.
“Some teams hit a pinnacle early in the season. Maryland was in first place at Christmas and didn’t make the playoffs. That team didn’t get better,” Coombs said. “I like our group and we’ve continued to grow. … I’m excited for this round. I certainly wish we had 24 guys, but we don’t. We have our 20 and we’ll go to battle.”
Both teams are coming off dramatic Game 5 victories in their East Division semifinal series.
Jamestown beat No. 2 Johnstown 4-3 in overtime Sunday as Ryan Waltman, who is tied for the NAHL lead with nine postseason points, scored the game-winning goal.
Likewise, New Jersey rallied in its Game 5 on Sunday night against No. 4 Northeast. Ryan Coughlin scored his second goal of the series with 1 second showing on the clock to send the Titans into the finals.
“I think our players should’ve learned a lot in Round 1. We had zero games of experience and went five games,” Coombs said. “I think our guys should’ve learned that it’s never over. Keep playing and keep getting better. They’ve done that.”
On Wednesday, the North American Hockey League released its All-Divisional Teams and honors. Jamestown and New Jersey were mentioned often.
Jak Vaarwerk, an East Amherst product who is committed to the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, was named the East Division Rookie of the Year after posting 18 goals and 35 assists during the regular season.
“He made it look really easy. He’s a heck of a hockey player. I would say Jak Vaarwerk is the best hockey player I’ve coached in my eight years in the NAHL,” Coombs said. “He’s the best hockey player the NAHL has seen in my eight years. He’s an awesome kid and a great teammate. I love him to death. He’s a treat to coach.”
Vaarwerk has followed up his breakout regular season with a team-high four goals and four assists in the playoffs.
“Hopefully I’ll watch Jak grow into hopefully cashing a paycheck,” Coombs added. “I think the ability is there and he has the passion to match.”
John Lundy, the Rebels captain, was named to the All-East Division team after registering a franchise-record 32 goals to go along with 25 assists during the regular season.
“John is a very gifted offensive player,” Coombs said. “His overall game is rounding out as well as his consistency.”
Lundy had a slow start to the semifinals series against Johnstown, but scored in each of the final two games.
“I’m absolutely flabbergasted that kid is uncommitted at this time,” Coombs said. “Somebody is missing out. The longer we play, the better it is for him.”
Jamestown defenseman Nathan Jurrens received the East Division Community Service Award.
“He’s a phenomenal teammate. Anything and everything that needed to be done around the rink, he was willing to do it,” Coombs said. “I think the world of him as a person. … That’s why we are where we are. We have good people.”
New Jersey forward Anthony Calafiore, defenseman David Posma and goaltender Andrew Takacs were named to the All-East Division team and the Titans were named the division’s Organization of the Year.
Calafiore scored 26 goals and had 33 assists while Posma had 11 goals and 29 assists during the regular season.
Takacs will be opposed by Nolan Suggs in the Jamestown crease. Takacs went 29-8-3-0 with a 2.45 goals against average and a .918 save percentage during the regular season for the Titans. Suggs went 25-10-1-1 with a 2.25 GAA and a .928 save percentage for the Rebels.
“Nolan Suggs has gotten better and better as the year has done on,” Coombs said. “No matter how good your team is, you’re going to break down and need your goalie to make a ‘Grade A’ save. He’s going to continue to do that for us.”
All four division finals will begin today. The Central Division will feature the top-seeded St. Cloud Norsemen against the second-seeded Aberdeen Wings. In the Midwest Division, the third-seeded Anchorage Wolverines will take on the fourth-seeded Minnesota Wilderness. In the South Division, the top-seeded Lone Star Brahmas will face off against the second-seeded New Mexico Ice Wolves.
The four divisional champions will advance to the Robertson Cup championship at Fogerty Arena in Blaine, Minnesota set for Friday, May 20 through Tuesday, May 24.